| A man shouts slogans at the rally in Srinagar. (AFP)
Srinagar, April 18: As Atal Bihari Vajpayee began his speech at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium, chinar trees swaying in the background, the setting looked just right for the sea of heads waiting to grab the gifts that would fall out of his kitty.
Patiently, they clutched at his every word, waited at every pause, expecting that a huge economic and political package would be announced for their Kashmir. But the Prime Minister played party pooper, merely assuring them they were close to his heart and his doors in Delhi were always open for them.
“Come knock at my door, Delhi’s doors and hearts are always open for you. We want to reduce physical distances so that the people of the country come closer to one another. That is the only way to bridge distances between hearts,” he said.
The gifts never came but the 10,000-strong crowd cheered anyway, egging Vajpayee on to quote the famous Kashmiri poet, Mehjoor.
“Oh Gardener, come let us re-enact the glory of spring and fill thy garden with flowers,” he recited, going on to speak of an era of peace in which the gardens of the Valley would be filled with flowers, not blood.
Vajpayee then extended New Year greetings to the people, saying it was “only in India that we celebrate Navroz, Good Friday and Ramnavami”.
Giving himself a pat on the back, Vajpayee reminded the people how he had vowed to hold free and fair elections in Kashmir. “When I announced that free and fair polls will be held in Kashmir, no one believed and some said that polls have never been free and fair in the state. But I proved them wrong.
“Violence is no solution to any problem. All issues should be settled through talks,” he said, extending a hand in friendship to Pakistan but regretting that it constantly negated “our efforts”.
As Vajpayee spoke, life in Srinagar and other towns remained crippled by the two-day general strike called by the Hurriyat Conference. Shops and business establishments were shut and traffic stayed off the roads. Schools and government offices were also closed.
But people had come from far and away to lend an ear to the Prime Minister. “I hope talks resume between the neighbours and the issue is resolved peacefully,” said Mohammad Akbar who came from Bandipore in north Kashmir.
“Mufti sahib is making all-out efforts to restore peace in the state. Now that the Prime Minister has assured him all support, we hope things will improve soon. Vajpayee should announce a massive economic package for the state which has suffered badly during past 12 years,” said Abdul Rashid of south Kashmir.
Chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who sat on the stage with the Prime Minister, seemed to await the economic package as much as the people. Later, word was out that even the state government and its ministers had expected one.
“Let us wait and watch. He has still a day before he completes his visit,” said a senior Cabinet colleague of the chief minister, who, too, addressed the people.
“People who braved the guns during the Assembly elections and came forward to vote did so for peace, for employment, for prosperity,” Mufti began.
“Our healing-touch policy is based on the logic that issues can only be resolved through dialogue and not by resorting to the gun. Gun has failed to solve any problem in the world. It is only through dialogue that issues can be resolved,” he said.
All around the stadium, People’s Democratic Party supporters, waving green party flags, had put up banners. One banner read “Mufti’s bitter truth, healing touch healing touch”.
Security around the stadium was unprecedented with hundreds of police personnel and paramilitary troops laying a virtual siege around it. People were frisked twice before being allowed entry. Most roads leading up to the stadium were barricaded.
Hundreds of buses and trucks were pressed into service by the PDP to ferry party supporters free of cost to the stadium. State finance minister Muzaffar Hussain Beigh welcomed Vajpayee at the venue, saying: “These people have crossed a river of death and blood to hear you and consolidate Kashmir’s relations with the rest of the country. They have high hopes, you must meet them.”
But the Prime Minister left them waiting.